In 2012, I visited IBM’s Almaden Research Center to see the science that will make its way into our lives in the coming decades. One of the most exciting advances by far was described to me by a researcher named Jim Hedrick: IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore had discovered a new kind of polymer that kills antibiotic-resistant disease and bacteria like MRSA.
This week, IBM announced that it has taken the research one step further, creating an antimicrobial hydrogel that is as biodegradable and biocompatible as in previous research—but is also effective against both gram-positive bacteria like MRSA and gram-negative bacteria like E. coli.
Today, you can find similar antimicrobials in products like bleach and alcohol. "The technology is not necessarily new. Antimicrobial polymers have been around for decades, but one of the things that makes this novel is that it’s biocompatible and biodegradable," explains IBM researcher Daniel Coady.
Unlike traditional antibiotics, which enter into bacterial cells and interfere with cellular machinery without damaging cell walls and membranes, IBM’s water-based solution uses electrostatic interaction—a positive charge that attracts negatively charged microbial membranes—to create catastrophic membrane failure. This method (obliterating everything) is much less likely to lead to resistance than the mechanisms used by regular antibiotics.
There are a slew of applications for the technology, according to Coady: Trace amounts of the hydrogel (measured in the parts per billion) could coat medical implants, catheters, and even soda fountains to eliminate bacteria. The material could be used in consumer products to extend shelf life, in toothpaste to break up plaque (the hydrogel can break through biofilms found in plaque), and in food products for sterilization.
IBM in Singapore has conducted all sorts of testing—including animal testing—on the hydrogel, and the results are promising. "The materials showed minimal if any toxicity and no irritation to animals," says Coady. "Nothing is without some risk, but as far as the preliminary studies we’ve conducted, we’re very excited."
Jumping over U.S. regulation hurdles could take a long time , but the hydrogel itself is expected to be ready in just a couple years.